AN EXPERIMENT: Love someone deeply and for a long time. End it, abruptly. Start fucking someone new. Be surprised—dismayed even—when your body follows a certain choreography as if automatically: a preprogrammed sequence, an anticipation of certain gestures, a procession of amenities customized for one person and perhaps not suited (or even pleasurable) to the new.
It seems terrible to think we are so rote, mechanized in those moments where we imagine a pliable, attentive body. We want to believe ourselves always capable of change; we want our art to be always running after the new. So much of what we call critique is about moving beyond habituation.
Though the collaborations between Simone Forti and Charlemagne Palestine are based in improvisation (that old signpost for instantaneous, sui generis creation) they must also be about a kind of lived knowledge, one fought for through endurance.
illummminnnatttionnnsssss!!!!!!! after all, is a kind of ritual. (The particular iteration I saw occurred last Sunday in a fourth-floor lobby gallery at the Museum of Modern Art.) And so perhaps there is another way to think about routine, not just as that from which we must be rescued. There is a thin line between modernist negation and industries of self-improvement.
As in many rites, it begins with a drink. Palestine dips a finger into the brown liquid and runs it around the rim of the glass, sounding it, sipping it, offering it to us, starting to drone. The noise emanates from only one side of his mouth (the other half still tightly pursed) as if the full thing unleashed would wreck us. It is sharp, abrasive, and mosquito-like, but as he continues it grows capacious. Amplifying in volume, the sound maintains its irritating knife-edge and yet somehow becomes comforting, widening into an embrace.
Forti is prone on the floor. Glacially, she begins to roll. Soon Palestine’s attention leaves us and he turns to her, circling hunched and predatory. By the time he gets to the baby grand piano—draped in his menagerie of stuffed animals and baroque schmatta—Forti is putting on her shoes. Now she paces: upright, brisk, determined.
This particular ritual has its roots in our favorite mythic wildness: Southern California of the early 1970s. The artists’ first improvisation sessions began in advance of a concert for the teacher Pandit Pran Nath, master of the Hindustani school of music Kirana gharana. Forti got stoned and they worked together, exploring a space they called The Temple.
It was a kind of offering, and perhaps that is the key to its reappearance at MoMA, fascinated as we now are with devotion. This messier side of the ’70s, the lawless experiments in living and earnest pursuit of higher planes has not always been easily registered. Sincerity is hard to swallow. Moreover, both artists retain the whiff of outsider-dom, adjacent but just exterior to Minimal music and Minimal (read: Judson) dance; in those worlds but not of them.
Pace Agnes de Mille, but the body lies. It betrays you. Its habits are marked by power, to be sure, inscribed within a set of inherited disciplines and techniques, but just as the body is the supreme site of control it is also stochastic, liable to excess and eclipse. So to watch Forti, now in her late seventies, is to watch a body in all its capacities, intelligences, and frailties, and a kind of fierceness in that. To have fidelity in the body, to follow it, to believe in its knowledge is not the same as taking its claims as apodictic. It is a kind of faith.
Palestine, after all, began as a carillonneur at Saint Thomas Church on Fifty-Third Street and Fifth Avenue, just shouting distance from MoMA. Less than a month ago, he packed listeners into a Brooklyn church (a place I imagine, like me, much of the audience had not entered in some time). And surely the museum—especially this one—has always been a place of worship. The difference now is what and how we worship.
The shoes come off, and Forti drags out two large sketchbooks. It is the stuff this building’s walls are made of, graphic marks done on the floor, but here without the promise of masculinist actualization. A heavy, audible sigh, and she crumples. Raising her torso abruptly, she announces, “the moon,” stretching the syllable into a coo. Half the audience follows the direction of her gaze.
Palestine is now at three electronic keyboards and the sounds escalate, denser and more thickly layered, gravelly and refracted. Forti is moving deep in plié, weighted by the aural saturation.
A few moments later, she instructs us more directly: “Turn and see the moon.” Nearly everyone complies. We look through the museum’s glass façade and toward something luminous. When was the last time you did that?
Forti begins to sing in what could be Italian. (The logics of dancer and musical accompaniment have no place here.) This is the kind of song your mother hummed while doing dishes, the kind you know without ever having learned. Palestine joins in, and arm-in-arm they stride, not quite harmonizing, yet somehow in sync. Their pace quickens and their voices mutate into a bawdy, rousing chorus, a bar song for closing time. To take us out, Palestine squeezes the bellies of two plush creatures, which make their own kind of tune.
Their process Forti attributes to Palestine’s way of letting the music develop only gradually. Drones, sustained tones, built up like the body’s mechanisms of intelligence: through duration, a refusal to let go, chronic and unrepentant.
Catherine Damman is a writer living in New York.
Simone Forti and Charlemagne Palestine’s illummminnnatttionnnsssss!!!!!!! was organized by Stuart Comer and Ana Janevski with Leora Morinis and ran April 13–14, 2014 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“AT 7:30 be ready to go across the street to that building there,” a man standing by the open window whispered as he placed a square wooden object in the palm of my hand. I followed the direction of his gaze to a tall opulent building—the Vault Karaköy, which used to house the Credit General Ottoman, recently converted into a luxury hotel—on the other side of Bankalar Caddesi, just a few doors down from SALT in Istanbul’s Galata quarter.
For the time-being we found ourselves in a shabby room bathed in an eerie blue light, as Charles Arsène-Henry initiated some of the black-clad dinner guests into the mysteries of his Library is on Fire project, installed all around us. The object I’d been handed—a three-dimensional rendering of a prison-cell image from Adolfo Bioy Cesares’s novel A Plan for Escape, displayed in the library—was the equivalent of a cinematic dissolve, prompting the transition to another state or dimension.
By the time we reached the hotel lobby and traded in our token for a black envelope containing a mask to be worn (when instructed) and a letter outlining the protocol of the ensuing “ceremony” (with its mild sadomasochistic overtones), we had become ghosts. At least that’s how we were addressed in the letter signed by artist Tristan Bera, who bid us to exit and “disappear” at the appointed hour, which would be signaled by a bell, rung twice.
Bera and Dominique Gonzales-Foerster conceived this multisensory Protocinema event as a sequel to 121st Night, which took place in Istanbul two years prior, during a full moon, like this evening. Roughly half of the twenty-two ghosts sitting down to the Dîner noire—artists Camilla Rocha and Mark Van Yetter, choreographer Gisèle Vienne, architect Philippe Rahm, writer Evrim Altug, dealer Stephanie Lockwood, and collector Ari Mesulam, among them—had taken part in the previous event. While in 121st Night they had been party hosts, incarnating various movie characters, here they were demoted to a more passive one as guests, glued to their seats for much of the occasion, which had been minutely planned so as to leave little room for improvisation or maneuver.
“We were ready to surrender,” Mihda Koray, founder of Istanbul-based project space and magazine Near East, told me once the dinner is over, “but the chance to surrender was denied us.” Was it the film noir soundtracks—which had played in the Library and in the hotel lobby while we milled about sipping black rum and stout beer—that had set our nerves on edge? Or was it the prospect of meeting “France’s most famous dominatrix”—as a recent Vanity Fair interview dubbed Catherine Robbe-Grillet, the widow of nouveau roman author and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet—who was acting as our mistress of ceremonies?
What we did relinquish, the minute we stepped inside the dark, candlelit hall, was a measure of control. Blindfolded (or as good as) with the mask, we were taken to our seats by Robbe-Grillet’s partner and faithful assistant, Beverly Charpentier, after pausing at the head of the table long enough to inhale the gothic fragrance of tuberose and listen to some opera. Appropriately, given our state of confusion, it was Mozart’s “Dove Sono” aria from The Marriage of Figaro, to which a contorted life-size mannequin resting atop the black tablecloth at one end of the table owed her name.
In an unexpected twist, “Comtesse Rosine” would eventually be joined at the other end of the table by a real-life counterpart, art critic Sinziana Ravini—one of the few participants to play an active part in the Dîner noire. The reddish-blond Ravini, who let herself be tied with ribbons and spoon-fed a bittersweet liquid concoction of sorro and black beet granita (one of the six courses devised with the Vault Karaköy’s chef Coşkun Uysal), was at once a doppelgänger of the mannequin and of Charpentier; indeed like her, she sported a tight-fitted black corset and fetching sarouel pants.
When we were not being expertly stroked with ostrich feathers and rubbed with fur by Robbe-Grillet, or entertained with readings from her autobiographical accounts and other books fit for Bera’s rayon noir of forbidden texts, my fellow voluptuaries and I attended to the business of feasting on all things black. Liberal doses of squid ink tinged our lips black, so that when the time had come for us to disappear and mingle as ghosts with those guests who’d only just arrived to see the remnants of the feast, we actually looked the part.
Trisha Brown, Opal Loop/Cloud Installation #72503, 1980. Performance view, New York Live Arts, New York, April 2014. Photo: Ian Douglas.
A FEW YEARS AGO, I wrote a review of New York City Ballet in which I talked about Balanchine’s great works as “museum pieces.” To me this wasn’t denigrating, merely stating fact—and so I was rather taken aback when, a couple of days later, I found myself again at City Ballet getting my tickets, and an older critic came rushing up behind me, screeching, “Don’t let her in! She hates Balanchine!”
I thought about this Tuesday night at New York Live Arts, during a performance by the Trisha Brown Dance Company that included reconstructions of her Son of Gone Fishin’, 1981, and Solo Olos, 1976. It felt like an uptown crowd (there was an intermission!), and also like an art wake, people coming to pay their respects.
I was with a dear friend, and at one point she whispered about being somewhat alienated from the work, that it wasn’t contemporary, and that a certain level of abandon had fled—that “the immaterial circumstances of the dance had left the material manifestation of the form.” She was not denigrating, merely stating fact—and so I was rather taken aback to find myself rushing to the work’s defense. Emotionally screeching, if not actually. That’s how it goes with love, I guess.
Because of course she’s right. At a certain point the spirit must depart, and we are left staring at the letter. I felt like that Tuesday, the edges hardening, and writing this now I feel grateful that Brown’s company, like Merce Cunningham’s, has had the good sense not to plod on in perpetuity and poverty (actual; City Ballet, unlike almost all modern dance troupes, has the money to be a museum—that’s important to keep in mind).
But at the time I was really only thinking, “All of the companies I love go away.”
And I do so love the liquid intelligence of Brown’s choreographic structures. The same collection of words always pools in my mind when watching: breakneck, fluid, mercurial, slippery… the dancers like the finest of parts in a machine so marvelously, delicately intricate.
Of course, of course, with Brown no longer at the helm the dancers are being careful with this material. As the then-Cunningham dancer Rashaun Mitchell said to me in 2011, “Merce’s presence fostered freedom in the dancers and I think that without him there is more of a tendency to make things exact and to define things.”
I thought of that line, also, Tuesday night, while watching Jamie Scott perform—Scott, like Mitchell, was in the final iteration of the Cunningham troupe, and now here she is again, a new final iteration. My eyes kept seeking her out on the stage; she seemed all lit up, looser and more alive than some of the other dancers—or maybe that was just what I wanted to see. Some sort of proof, of what? The final line of her short program bio reads like a gift to her audience: “She is excited for the opportunity to begin again.”
And then, of course, how deeply weird to be talking about all of this within New York Live Arts, which until a few years ago was Dance Theater Workshop. Just so does the Paul Taylor American Dance Company become Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance, as was recently announced. Fair enough. But to quote the New York Times’s Alastair Macaulay, “I don’t care for the apostrophe: Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance suggests that he is annexing the rest of American modern dance.”
Isn’t this just how the downtown world feels about Bill T. Jones, who, with artistic director Carla Peterson decamping, is soon to be solely at the helm of New York Live Arts? Peterson taking over the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography at Florida State University is great news for the field—they couldn’t have chosen a better successor for Jennifer Calienes—but now whither NYLA?
Or, better, whither dance at NYLA? A couple of weeks ago, Luciana Achugar confronted Jones in the middle of her piece after he became maniacally, vocally involved, overriding many of the performer plants in the chaotically ritualistic Otro Teatro. She yelled him down: “It’s your theater but it’s not your fucking piece!”
It was thrilling, intensely disquieting. Would she have yelled at anyone else this way? The symbolic and the actual merged. As Mathew Pokoik of Mount Tremper Arts wrote on Twitter, “the church’s (male) repression of pagan (female) ritual.”